Within narrative fiction, illustrations work alongside text in a responsive way, helping to visualise characters, moods and locations. Illustrations can be more imaginative than many other types of illustration – they’re there to communicate ideas, emotions, moods, drama and contexts as much as characters, actions and plots. Trying to focus on the overall mood, direction, genre and feel of the book will give an impression of the novel without getting too hung up on the specific content.
Key questions for illustrators when reading the text:
- What is the overall mood, genre and feel?
- What is the plot?
- Who are the important characters and what is their relationship?
- Who are the readers?
- What is the purpose of the illustration?
- Do you create an image that visualises the beginning, middle or end, or try to create a piece that suggests all three?
The answers are likely to differ depending on the type of book and its purpose, the age of the reader and the purpose of the illustration.
Linking images with text
There is a physical connection between image and text, defining where the images go on the page and how they interact with the written word. There are lots of different ways of working image and text together, including:
- whole page illustrations that sit alongside the text, headers, footers or as vignettes that the text wraps around.
- typography continuing over the top of an illustration or the illustration extending over the type (space needs to be allowed for this)
- digitally compositing the text as part of the image (see my work on Image and Text for Book Design 1, particularly Jabberwocky)
- ‘visual word’ illustrative treatment of the typography itself (see my posts for Book Design 1: Experimental Typography, Concrete Poetry). Some calligraphic traditions, particularly Islamic calligraphy use the expressive forms of type see post: Islamic calligraphy on Book Design 1 and Hassan Massoudy (forthcoming)
Book covers need a bold visual statement to draw people in, but also need to present key information such as the author, title or publisher. Book covers are most successful when the illustration and the typography have a sympathetic relationship – they’re both pulling in the same direction.
“In fairy tales, internal processes are translated into visual images. When the hero is confronted by difficult inner problems which seem to defy solution, his psychological state is not described; the fairy story shows him lost in a dense, impenetrable wood, not knowing which way to turn, despairing of finding the way out. To everybody who has heard fairy tales, the image and feeling of being lost in a deep, dark forest are unforgettable…“Telling a fairy tale with a particular purpose other than that of enriching the child’s experience turns the fairy story into a cautionary tale, a fable, or some other didactic experience. which at best speaks to the child’s conscious mind, while reaching the child’s unconscious directly also is one of the greatest merits of literature.” Bruno Bettelheim 1975 quoted course text pp 83-84
In illustrated children’s books there’s often a more obvious conversation taking place between text and image. The relationship between image and text varies depending on the target age of the children, and their assumed level of reading skill. Illustrations are often there to facilitate reading of the text, but also to stimulate imagination.
- How do you visually help tell a story without giving too much away? The illustrations need to support the text without being too dominant, stealing the storytelling away, but at the same time they shouldn’t be too distant from the action.
- Where along the course of the narrative should the images be placed? At what point in the action would an image be best suited – just before something has happened, during, or at the end?
- What should the images focus on? should they be character-driven, bringing identities, expressions and gestures to life, or focused on location and landscape.
In some cases illustrations set the blueprint for future interpretations.
In some cases the book’s creator is both author and illustrator:
- The Cat in the Hat (1954) created and illustrated by Theodor Geisel writing as Dr Seuss, Der Struwwelpeter
- Shockheaded Peter (1845) by Heinrich Hoffmann
- Where The Wild Things Are (1963) by Maurice Sendak
- Beatrix Potter (1866–1943).
There are also many examples of illustrators who have defined a story visually by being the first or best illustrator to respond to it. In other cases the illustration style becomes inseparable from the reader’s interpretation.
- Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass and Jabberwocky.
- Winnie The Pooh (1926) written by A A Milne and illustrated by E H Shepard
- The Gruffalo (1999) written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated
by Axel Scheffler
- Little Red Riding Hood (1812) as defined by the Brothers Grimm and
illustrated by Arthur Rackham.
- Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake
Comics and Graphic novels
Within comics and graphic novels, the line between what’s written and what’s visual, between the image and the text, becomes increasingly blurred, with written elements taking on the form of illustrations and the whole existing within a carefully constructed visual narrative of frames, bubbles, and drawings. See Sequential Illustration.